So You’ve Decided to Reject Civilization

This article first appeared in Alan Moore’s Dodgem Logic #4.

Congratulations! You’ve decided to reject civilization! There are so many reasons why you might have done so.

Maybe you’ve watched so many post-apocalypse movies or read so many books and comics that you really wish the world would hurry up and end so you can get on with living as you’d like to. Maybe you’ve intellectually come to understand the horrors of the modern political system, and have determined that its roots run all the way back to when some folks started locking up food and only giving it out in exchange for labor. Maybe you’ve looked to the world around you and decided that the monstrous evils being perpetuated against the natural earth really are unforgivable, and the complex of societies that has allowed that to happen ought to be destroyed—or at best ignored. Maybe you just like harvesting wild food but don’t see why we have to give up living in cities.

Whatever your reasoning, we’re quite happy to have you in the ranks of the post-civilized.

A few suggestions:

  • Examine your surroundings. See what resources are available for your use, and plan accordingly.
  • Actively recycle and reuse everything.
  • Eschew money. If a problem can be solved without money, don’t use it.
  • Find your people. Work with them. Network with other groups.
  • Specialize in one or two skills that you can offer. Generalize in a ton of skills.

This information is known to be applicable in the United States and is generally true of other “developed” nations. Much of it is applicable elsewhere throughout the world, but certainly, the post-civilized must adopt different tactics in different bioregions.

Food:

Food? If you’re in the “developed” world, food is the easy part. And when I say “easy part,” I mean, “thing that will supplant all other desires in your brain and potentially consume a great portion of your time.” But compared to shelter or health care, getting food is easy.

There is food everywhere. Even in the cities, there are wild edibles: the last place I was living, we ate dandelion greens (get young leaves, steam them and change the water once), clover (eat it right off the ground), acorns (soak the tannins out by leaving them in a running creek for a few days—or boil in a few changes of water—then grind into flour), and various nuts like chestnuts. Ornamental oranges can be made into marmalade. Mesquite pods can be ground into flour. Many people with fruit trees in their yards usually don’t mind or notice if you glean, and it rarely hurts to ask. If you eat meat, there’s roadkill. In the city, you’ll find squirrels and cats. Outside the city, you’ll find a lot larger and tastier animals. You have to be careful with roadkill, of course. Eat freshly killed animals, and learn how to prepare them for eating from somewhere that isn’t this article. I don’t touch the stuff, I’m vegan.

Then there’s the garbage. People throw away food all of the time. For the purposes of the urban forager, there are essentially two varieties: dumpstered and left-overs. If you head on over to the dumpster behind any given grocery store, you’ll find food in the trash pretty much every night. The trick to eating dumpstered food is to figure out why it was thrown away. Sometimes food is tossed because it’s past its expiration date: if so, you can usually smell it to see if it’s gone bad. Look for puffy lids as a sign that food might actually not be edible. Sometimes food gets thrown away because the box is torn, or because one glass jar of sauce broke and they threw away the whole box of jars. Bruised produce is common, as are ripe bananas. When you eat dumpstered food, you often get food in bulk; it’s good to have a system to distribute this bounty to your friends. What else are you going to do with 40 gallons of orange juice? Remember to wash your hands before you eat anything. You could wear gloves, but then other dumpster-divers might make fun of you.

Dumpstering is sometimes illegal, depending on where you are, and often the best food is thrown out at the end of the night. But if you’re wandering around hungry during the day, you can swallow your pride and dig through trash cans on the street corner. If a half-eaten falafel sounds good to you (and it does to me), then you might as well eat it. I find it best to just take from the top of the trash can, and to look out for contamination.

A lot—but certainly not all—of the post-civilized also shoplift food. Usually from larger, corporate stores. Universal morality is one of the things that we’ll be glad to get rid of as we abandon civilization: instead, we have our individual ethical codes.

And finally, there’s guerrilla gardening. Grow food in every available bit of green space. Even if you don’t eat it yourself, whoever does will thank you.

Clothing:

Wear whatever you want. This should be true all the time, of course, but it so rarely is. Civilized people just don’t dress like they’re extras in a Mad Max movie. (Which is a damn shame!) Civilized people are really concerned with what other people might think about what they wear.

But the important thing about thinking outside the box is: well, if you’re only thinking outside the box, you’re still not thinking within the full range of possibilities. Don’t be strange just to be strange: be strange because it’s who you are. Or hell, wear suit and tie. People get so caught up about clothes.

If you’re looking to fit in with the civilized, it shouldn’t be hard. People are throwing away and giving away clothes all of the time. But while it’s useful to be able to camouflage yourself, it’s often a strong desire for the aesthetic of re-use and re-appropriation that draws us away from civilization in the first place. If society, and its conventions, didn’t exist, what would you wear? What would you look like? What’s available to incorporate into this garb?

Dental floss makes wonderful thread, as does sinew, as does, well, thread. Once you start looking through the trash, you’ll never run short of materials to work with.

Shelter:

Finding or making shelter is sometimes difficult. The civilized put a lot of stock into owning land, which they call “property” and seek to privatize. In most countries, its perfectly legal (despite being remarkably rude) to own vacant buildings, preventing anyone else from using them without actually doing anything with them themselves.

Fortunately, the post-civilized don’t put much stock in law—though we’re smart enough to know that other folks do—and squatting abandoned buildings is certainly an ethical thing to do. Squatting is complicated and contextual, with few situations being quite the same. But if I may be rude and generalize, there are two types of squatters: squatters who build up the places that they live in, turning them into fantastical wonderlands of potential; and squatters who piss in the corner and generally turn the place to shit.

The point of dropping out of civilization isn’t to pass out drunk every night (though it isn’t so hard to brew your own alcohol!), it’s to liberate ourselves and present to the world a more complex, diverse, and natural way of living.

Another time-honored tradition is to find a bit of woods and build a shack, usually of repurposed and recycled materials.

Some opt to compromise and buy or rent, usually living in high density so as to keep prices down. Shacks get built on rental properties, lofts get built in the living room, etc.

Wait a second!

“Aren’t you just parasitizing something that you claim to be against if you live off of civilization’s discards? Aren’t you as tied into and dependent on consumerism as someone who goes out and just buys the stuff?”

Of course, if you want to look at it that way. But we’re not talking about simple (and respectable!) freeganism. We’re talking about living post-civilized. In any given context, we’re going to look around ourselves and see what’s available. Right now, there’s a hell of a lot. After the collapse, things are going to look a whole lot different.

Generalize and Specialize:

Being independent is a wonderful thing. But having people on whom you can rely is finer still. So learn how to take care of yourself: grow, find, and cook food; repair your own clothes, tools, and toys; learn about health, first aid, and first-response emergency care; learn how to fight, at least enough to knock someone down and run; learn how consensus decision making works. Hell, there’s lots to learn.

But you don’t need to master every single skill. People get so caught up in how specialization is either wonderful (say the civilized) or oppressive (say the primitivists) without really pausing to consider that generalization and specialization don’t need to compete.

Everyone ought to know to take garlic in their tea if they’re getting sick, but for the full range of mental and physical ailments that can be treated herbally? You need a specialist. And while one person specializes in that, someone else is going to keep making antibiotics (there is nothing that the civilized know that we cannot learn).

Personally? I’m not going to spend all of my time learning how to design permacultured gardens. But I’ll sure volunteer when it’s time for harvest.

Next issue: After the collapse.

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